The presence of Rhoda Wakeman and her Wakemanites may have been virtually unkown outside of the New Haven prior to 1855, but that all changed with news of Justus Washington Matthews' brutal murder. Revelations about the Wakemanites suddenly became front-page news across the United States, something that likely didn't appeal to their long-suffering neighbours. That it would soon be followed with news of two other murders simply added to the media frenzy.
According to newspaper accounts, Justus Matthews' murder only came to light on December 26, 1855 when a young son of the dead man began searching for his father who had failed to return home. Knowing that he had gone to Rhoda Wakeman's home, the boy, 19-year-old Willard Matthews, walked into the house and checked the front room (everyone was asleep after the exorcism ordeal of the previous evening). What he found was his father's dead body and, as one newspaper reported:
"When first discovered, the body lay on the floor with the head towards a bed in the room and it was found with the face turned towards the window, lying upon the left side and lay very nearly in the middle of the room. Clotted blood and hair lay on the floor around him and several pools of blood were found near his head. It was truly an awful scene to witness. The throat was cut nearly from ear to ear and his head seemed to be nearly severed from his body."
Horrified by his discovery, Willard immediately ran next door to get a neighbour to see the body. The neighbour raised an alarm and Sheriff Leander Parmalee came to investigate. On inspecting the body, Parmalee found clear evidence of rope marks on the wrists and a small rope lying on the floor nearby. After questioning Rhoda Wakeman and all the others who had been present the night Justus Matthews died, he promptly arrested them all. The inquest began just a few days later (on Christmas day, as it happened).
Though the Wakemanites had been tight-lipped at first, Samuel Sly finally gave a complete confession describing how the murder had taken place. He was ordered held along with Rhoda Wakeman and three other disciples while everyone else was released. In the meantime, newspapers were providing all of the lurid details in one sensational story after another. The New York Times referred to it as a "Horrible Case of Fanaticism" and portrayed Rhoda as having an almost hypnotic hold on her gullible followers. One enterprising reporter from the New York Tribune managed to find Rhoda's "sacred papers": ten pages carefully bound together which had been kept hidden under her bed. As for Rhoda, she continued to rant about the evil spirits that were afflicting her and her followers. The general conclusion was that she was completely deranged and likely more of a danger to herself than anyone else.
But the killings weren't done yet...
Another of Rhoda's followers, Charles Sanford, had not been present during that fatal exorcism but what followed next showed that he was very much under her influence. A rather odd-looking 27-year-old with a long history of medical problems, including a club foot and frequent stays in insane asylums, he also happened to be a nephew of Justus Matthews and often attended Wakemanite meetings along with him and other family members. But he also had a problem with abdominal cramps which he came to believe was due to being bewitched by some unknown enemy. Since Rhoda's sermons often focused on the evil spells cast by witches and sorcerers, her message played perfectly into Charles Sanford's growing paranoia.
On January 1, 1856, just days after his uncle's brutal murder, Charles came hobbling out of his parent's home carrying an axe. Nobody was particularly alarmed at this sight (he made a modest living as a woodcutter) and likely didn't notice that he was also carrying a hickory club sharpened at both ends. Just hours later, he encountered a neighbour, 69-year-old Enoch Sperry. Sperry was a prosperous farmer, well-thought of in the community, who was walking beside his horse he and Sanford met. As it happened, Enoch Sperry had been a frequent customer of Rhoda Wakeman and often purchased her various healing compounds. Whether or not Charles Sanford intended to kill Sperry, he wasted no time in attacking the elderly farmer. After repeatedly fracturing Sperry's skull, Charles almost completely decapitated him before running off.
Several hours later, Sanford wandered into the home of another elderly farmer, Ichabod Umberfield. The man's housekeeper and her daughter panicked at the sight of the eccentric Sanford carrying an axe and barricaded themselves in a bedroom. Though the housekeeper managed to shout out a warning to her employer. Umberfield knew Sanford and likely thought he could persuade him to put down his axe. This would prove to be a fatal error. At some point during their conversation, Sanford picked up the axe and struck his victim three times in the head. On witnessing the killing, the housekeeper's daughter began screaming and Sanford told her to "stop your noise or you'll get your head chopped off." After he stepped outside to wash his axe in the snow, the two women promptly locked the door behind him.
In the meantime, another neighbour discovered Enoch Sperry's body and arranged for it to be carried to his home. The sheriff, along with a posse of local men began following the trail of blood Sanford had left behind in the snow to the Umberfield house where they found Sanford, still armed with his axe. Sanford fought like a madman, and even managed to injure the sheriff with his axe. After they finally brought him down and managed to cart him off to jail, Sanford said that he had been on his way to kill the rest of the Umberfield family.
Two separate inquests were conducted that same day and Charles Sanford formally charged with both murders. As for why he had killed the two men, the only hint of a motive came from Sanford himself. As far as he was concerned, he had killed Sperry and Umberfield to rid himself of the cramps that had been torturing him and that both killings had been simple self-defense. That he had been influenced by the murder of his uncle, Justus Matthews, and Rhoda Wakeman's teachings, nobody doubted.
As for how the courts dealt with Sanford, Rhoda Wakeman, and the others, that is a story in itself.
To be continued